Rachel Khong has trouble telling her life story. To her, life happens in the tiny daily interactions, and so to have a tidy narrative ready—the sweeping story of how she got from A to B—doesn’t accurately take into account how mysterious everything is.
Khong says that she “didn’t want anything big” to happen in her debut novel, Goodbye, Vitamin, but instead wanted it to exist in the “space in-between.” Written in a series of diaristic entries, the novel starts around Christmas and spans a year. Thirty-year-old Ruth Young, fresh off a broken engagement, has moved home after learning that her father, Howard, has Alzheimer’s disease. The book follows her as she tries to care for him while dealing with her breakup and career ambivalence.
Khong and I spoke by phone about the relationship between food and control, the process of editing her novel, and the odd things your exes remember about you.
The Millions: You’ve mentioned before that you don’t think Goodbye, Vitamin is necessarily about Alzheimer’s, and that it’s more a novel about memory. I’m curious, what do you mean by that?
Rachel Khong: Well, it’s obviously not not a novel about Alzheimer’s. That’s absolutely a component of the book and it’s a really important dynamic in the family. The fact that her father’s been diagnosed with it is the reason that Ruth comes home.
But I’m hesitant to have it be labeled a novel specifically about Alzheimer’s because I don’t think that’s the main struggle. I think it would be disappointing to someone who came to this thinking, “this is going to tell me a lot about Alzheimer’s and what it’s like to take care of someone with the disease.” It’s more about this woman who is having to come to terms with her own life as she has narrated it until that point, and also navigate these relationships with family members and with friends and obviously with her ex-fiancé.
TM: Right, the novel takes place at the very early stages of Alzheimer’s. We can see the effects, but it’s not yet about tropes like “my father doesn’t recognize me” or “should I put him in a nursing home.” He’s not really in the worst of it.
RK: Yeah, her dad is in the beginning stages and it’s not quite as bad as it will be. It’s still a more pronounced version of the memory loss that, really, we all experience. I think Alzheimer’s was just a way to talk about memory that was more explicit for people to understand.
I think I err on the side of subtlety and not saying things really directly. That’s the kind of thing I like to read and I think more can be communicated sometimes in the space between words. That sounds so pretentious, I know, but I think more can be said by not directly going, hey, it really sucks that Alzheimer’s wipes away your whole life and it destroys the relationships in your life. That was not something that I felt needed to be explored because it was almost too obvious. I wanted to write about the day-to-day memory loss that we all experience because that was just more interesting to me.
TM: What drives this interest in memory? You said that Alzheimer’s was a way to explore memory, is the theme of “memory” a way to explore something else?
RK: I have always been interested in communication and how faulty it can be between people and trying to understand the reason for that, and I think I pinpointed that to memory. Memory is everywhere, in the ways we think of ourselves and tell our stories. There are certain kinds of people who have more of a sense of who they are and their whole life story. They could tell it to you at a campfire. I think that I have never thought of my own life in that way. Does that make sense?
TM: Yes, definitely. I know people who have an “elevator pitch” version of their life that’s very coherent and that they have down flat.
RK: Exactly. I’ve never been able to completely narrate my life from like from start to finish because that’s just not the way that my brain operates. And so I was interested in, what’s the difference between these two approaches—not that there are only two—and trying to understand what makes us think of ourselves in a certain way, how we as individuals think about our own lives and how memory figures into that.
TM: So what do you say when you do get asked that question about your life story?
RK: Immediately, I just am deeply skeptical. It doesn’t feel accurate to narrate your life in that elevator pitch way, so I just feel kind of squirmy. I know the things that have been consistent in my life. I know that I have always wanted to be a writer, for example, and I’ve always been somebody who likes to make stuff up and imagine things and wants to know more about other people and get inside their brains. But that’s not what people necessarily are asking. They want to know how you get from point A to point B. I think life is so much more mysterious than that and it feels really fake to me to try to make sense of that and that’s not what the book does.
TM: The book takes place over a year and it uses this very diaristic form. What made you choose that span, and that format? And have you read Elif Batuman’s The Idiot? That’s the book that I was thinking of when I was reading Goodbye, Vitamin.
RK: I have not.
TM: I think they’re similar, not necessarily in plot or theme, but in that they’re both written in these short entries, and they’re both very—I think “observant” is the word that comes to mind. Just made up of these little moments.
RK: Yeah. I wanted the book to be a reflection of life, I think, and so I didn’t want anything huge to happen. I didn’t want anything terrible to happen to Howard, I didn’t want anyone to die, I didn’t want anyone to get married.
In that big life story that you tell somebody—that myth that you tell people—you wouldn’t talk about things that just happened quietly every day and yet those things are the very material of that big sweeping story. Those little moments, those little interactions are who you are; every day is what makes up your life. I think I just wanted to explore that space and to not have those big events and those things that would normally get told in the big sweeping story to be part of this book. I wanted it to exist in the space in-between.
TM: One of my favorite scenes was this really small moment. At one point Joel, Ruth’s ex-fiancé, calls her and tells her that he learned that goats have square pupils and that this is something he thought she’d like. It’s such a small, sort of useless thing to know about someone, but it’s special that they remember it about you. And knowing that other people remember these small moments about you, to my mind, gives all of these day-to-day moments more power.
RK: Yeah, I think you have it exactly right. The fact is that Ruth has sort of been waiting for this call. She’s been waiting for a call or some word from him, she’s been quietly agonizing when she knows she shouldn’t be and then the thing he calls about is square goat pupils. Which sounds silly, but it’s also something really intimate to know about a person, that they care about that sort of thing. But it’s also sort of arbitrary and that’s how things are.
TM: Yeah, there’s a line where Ruth talks about how Joel did “half the work of remembering.” And I remember reading Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World, which is a memoir about her husband’s sudden death, and she says something very similar, about how in a relationship you divide up the labor of who remembers what.
RK: Two people can have a whole list of shared things and shared experiences and when that, when a relationship ends and you no longer have those shared things, it’s almost like your identity has changed. You have to learn how to be the person and do the work of remembering your own life again.
I think it’s easy for people to tell you when you’re mourning the end of something, it’s easy to say, you’ll get over it and it’ll just take time, you’ll get over it. There are still things that remain in your brain that you have no power over and will always take up space there.
TM: In the novel, Howard is a university professor who’s had affairs in the past. At one point, we meet one of Howard’s current students, Joan. Ruth thinks that Joan has had some sort of affair with her dad. Joan says something like, “he doesn’t remember me,” and Ruth goes, “what doesn’t he remember?”
That was really poignant. On the one hand, it’s sad that he can’t remember because it’s a disease, but on the other hand, him not remembering almost absolves him and makes their family life easier. But Ruth won’t forget.
RK: Having Joan in the book to me was a way for Ruth to have to confront this version of her father that she didn’t really know that much about and see it in action and up close. And she has to process it and be forced to deal with it and to see what her brother had seen all along. Unlike him, she left home because she got to really see her father’s flaws close up.
It was really important to me to have Howard be this flawed character, not this shining, amazing history professor who was blameless and was a perfect father and now having tragic things happening. I really want to explore all the ways in which we all kind of fail one another and having Joan be there and just sort of having her be there for Ruth to deal with was a way to do that.
TM: Did she have to confront this directly? She couldn’t really believe her brother’s memories or take his word for it?
RK: She didn’t want to have her bubble burst. Some of us are more able to just take someone else’s word at things and then others of us need to experience things more empirically and experience the heartbreak firsthand. For Ruth, of course she believes her brother, but it’s hard to really take someone else’s word for something so big when all you know of that person is their more loving side. She is obviously throughout pretty conflicted. She wants to hang onto this previous memory of her dad. You do kind of want to believe the best about people.
TM: I’m also interested in the role of food and health in the novel, especially given the title. Ruth becomes obsessed with making her dad eat “cruciferous foods” like broccoli because she reads that they ward off dementia. That made me think about how, culturally, we really want to believe that if we eat enough acai berries, we can protect ourselves. Then, near the end of the book, Howard refuses to eat the cruciferous food and Ruth is just like, “okay.” Is this her acknowledging that she doesn’t have much control?
RK: I think the sense there is just that maybe happiness is more important than food. Even as the book spans a year and nothing huge happens, there is this small shift in the way that Ruth and her father kind of come to think about, well, just living and the time that they have.
They sort of start to learn more to live moment-to-moment, be content in moments and just be able to observe something and have that be completely fulfilling. For Ruth, it would make sense for her to want the future to come quicker, in her own life personally. She wants things to be better, she wants to get over this breakup, she wants to have a job that she loves, she wants things for her own life. But I think because she knows that wanting the future for herself means wanting a worse future for her father—a future in which he will necessarily be in a worse mental state—she’s learned how to think less about, or obsess less about, the future, to just live more in the present.
So, back to the question about food, I think that’s just an offshoot of that. She’s kind of surrendered some of that control, control of obsessing over the diet, the control of whatever her own future will be personally.
TM: What was the process of researching this book like? How much of it was biographical—you’re also from southern California, where the novel takes place—versus a lot of research?
RK: I don’t think any element of the book was either straight-up from my knowledge or straight-up imagined. I was reading a lot about California history, about Alzheimer’s as a disease. Some of the characters are really some amalgamation, others are a blend of things I’ve stolen from people.
TM: What sorts of things did you steal?
RK: There’s this journal that Howard has kept for Ruth and it’s full of entries about days when she was younger. I made a lot of those up, but I did have a few of those that my friends told me about their kids. I have one friend that was telling me about her son Darwin, and he had said the line in the book about asking what nerds are, and then getting them confused with nerves. Then I asked her for permission to reuse that in the book because I thought it was so wonderful.
TM: What about the process of editing?
RK: It was a really very haphazard process. I wrote the beginning, middle, end as a draft and then I sort of would attack really randomly. I had a day job too and just having to revise when I had any spare moment led to this really random way of approaching the revision process.
It helped that the book is formatted in the way that it is. I would open the book up at random and see what needed to be fixing, and then fix it. Sometimes I’d just think of a new scene and stick it in there and try to arrange it or deal with it later. The book is a lot about the layering of emotions and dynamics between people. So revising was just this really gentle layering and layering on of emotions, but also of people’s characteristics and things like that, spending lot of time with these characters and thinking about what their motivations were and what they would do next was a big part of revising.
TM: So this book is out, and you’re writing another novel! Can you tell me a little about it?
RK: Not quite. I am definitely working on a novel, but it’s I’m a little stuck right now and I’m trying to figure out what’s happening next, so I can’t jinx it.
Throughout this year, I’ve been writing a proposal for a memoir about my mother. To inspire myself, and to indulge in others’ work before I’m afraid of being influenced by it, I’ve read and reread several memoirs. Of those, I came away from Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World in renewed awe and gratitude for how she shows a shimmering portrait of mutual love. With Margo Jefferson’s Negroland, I marveled at the wit and razor-sharp lens she brought to bear on her own pretensions, born of racist confines. I found Alysia Abbott’s Fairyland, with its daughter raised by a single gay father in 1970s San Francisco, bearing witness in an essential way. I then discovered on my own bookshelf Hilton Als’s searing and astonishing book The Women. I’m almost embarrassed to say I bought this book off a discounted-book table at an indie bookstore years ago and hadn’t yet read it. I devoured it as if to make up for lost time. No one, anywhere, has yet to convey with such unapologetic rigor and compassion the interior life of a black mother, and I haven’t fully recovered from it.
When Feminist Press announced its Louise Meriwether First Book Prize, I again reread my worn copy of her seminal novel, Daddy Was a Number Runner, just to remind myself anew how books change lives, how that book changed mine. Also, I’m fortunate enough to direct a writer-in-residence program at the college where I teach, which allows me to invite several writers to campus. It makes for a natural homework assignment, as I always read their work before they arrive. Lucky me that my homework this year included Amitav Ghosh’s latest novel Flood of Fire about the opium trade in 1800s India (read the entire trilogy and be amazed); Monique Truong’s magnificent Bitter in the Mouth, about a Vietnamese-American growing up in the American South; Marilyn Nelson’s poignant memoir, How I Discovered Poetry (which took me back to her Faster Than Light: New And Selected Poems); and Morgan Parker’s smart, sharp poetry collection Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night (stay tuned for her 2017 release, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce).
This year also marks my son’s senior year in high school; he wants to pursue acting. His drama teacher assigned Anna Deavere Smith’s Letters to a Young Artist and, as I sometimes do, I read the book alongside him. In light of the election, Deveare Smith acutely reminded me that artists’ activism is everything. Speaking of which, on Sunday following the election, I joined authors Nicole Dennis-Benn and Amani Al-Khatahtbeh on a panel for The Hustle reading series in Brooklyn. It was soothing to come together around literature, and I’m grateful to now have Dennis-Benn’s revelatory novel, Here Comes the Sun, at my bedside to tumble into each night, like a balm. But I’m still reeling from something voiced during that panel. When I noted that a Donald Trump presidency (writing that phrase feels so tawdry and sad) required us all to “do more,” Al-Khatahtbeh said, “I plan to do less.” She said that since 9/11, she and other women Muslim writers and activists had spent untold time and resources and psychic energy trying to convince “them” that they too are Americans, that they too love this country, that they are not the enemy. She said, essentially, that it’s time for others to do that work. Amen.
I went home and read her slim, explosive memoir, Muslim Girl, and was startled by its candor and force, and also by how prescient the book is. In describing her experience of being in Britain this past summer, Al-Khatahtbeh wrote: “As impossible as we were hoping — imagining — the rise of racism to be, it can, in fact, win. The U.K.’s decision (Brexit), was a clear demonstration of that, and, at worst, it was a sign of what was waiting for us come November.”
I’m like most of you, I’m sure, in that I’ve read a lot of essays and op-eds and news stories and manifestos since the election. Nothing shook me like the words of Sarah Kendzior, who has studied authoritarian states for over a decade. “My Fellow Americans, I have a favor to ask you,” she wrote. “I want you to write about who you are…what standards you hold for yourself and for others…Never lose sight of…what you value. If you find yourself doing something that feels questionable or wrong a few months or years from now, find that essay you wrote on who you are and read it. Ask if that version of yourself would have done the same thing.”
Looking back, I see now that the best books I’ve read this year are themselves a prescient compilation, a kind of personalized, serial guidebook for the new world order we now inhabit; it’s an indicator of what I believe in, who I strive to be, what matters to me. I plan to remind myself of this in the dark days ahead, remind myself that it’s important to remain true to my own ideals.
What’s really important, as we enter 2017, is that we validate one another’s humanity. May good books help us do just that.
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The Pulitzer jury named Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer this year’s winner in the fiction category.
Here are this year’s Pulitzer winners and finalists with bonus links:
Winner: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Nguyen’s Year in Reading 2015)
Get in Trouble: Stories by Kelly Link (Memory is a Mysterious Machine: The Millions Interviews Kelly Link)
Maud’s Line by Margaret Verble
Winner: Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran by Carla Power
Winner: Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T.J. Stiles
Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War by Brian Matthew Jordan
Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid That Avenged Pearl Harbor by James M. Scott
Biography or Autobiography:
Winner: Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan
Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T.J. Stiles
The Light of the World: A Memoir by Elizabeth Alexander
Winners and finalists in other categories are available at the Pulitzer Web site.